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a peer counseling primer

------------------------ | written by basil

------------------------ basic theory

the basic premise of peer counseling, as I see it is that everyone is born in touch with their natural essence and divine path. but, through the process of socialization -- abusive and oppressive or not -- we have been thwarted from that path and connection to it.

counseling is a way to give us the space to be listened to in a non-judgemental way and the space for us to be able to experience and express our emotions openly. through this process we can reconnect with our divine nature.

peer counseling is the facilitation of this process with peers working in both roles of counselor and client. opposite to the relationship between a client and their therapist -- someone who is paid for their services and someone who possibly has no connection to the clients' life -- peer counseling offers a way to build community while supporting the mental health of that communities members. ideally, it is a process where people support each other in our own autonomy and connections with our self and everything around us.

basic structure

peer counseling has a specific structure. during a counseling session, we give each person equal time to be heard. if there is two people in the counseling group, each person will take turns in being the counselor and being the client. if there are 3 or more people, each person in the group should be given equal time to be heard while the other people in the group have the chance to do some shared listening.

for example, if there are two people, we would pick a time amount for each person to be counseled. we would decide who counseled first and who counseled second. then we would start. if we chose 15 minutes as a time, we would start with one person being counseled for 15 minutes, stop, switch and have the other person be counseled for 15 minutes, then stop.

before you begin

here are some tools for understanding what to do to set up a session. this section will help you consider groundrules, time and place.

before you begin the session, negotiate groundrules with each other.

as a start, always have the groundrule of confidentiality. that is, nothing the client shares can or will be repeated by the counselor without client permission first. for example, if i'm the client and i tell you i like chocolate as part of my session, you don't have the ownership of my story to repeat that i like chocolate to anyone, unless you ask me if it's okay to tell other people that i like chocolate.

next, always split the time in the session evenly, even if it seems like one person needs or wants more time. this way you don't compromise the integrity of the session by going against the agreements set up in the beginning.

lastly, negotiate groundrules that you need or want that will help both of you feel comfortable and able to make this counseling relationship work.

some people choose to have a "no sex" rule with their clients, even when their clients are their close friends. some partners choose to have a time set aside for counseling that doesn't include sexual interaction. for example, a couple who does peer counseling might have a groundrule of "no sex for 4 hours before or after a session."

other people have rules about drug usage, nicotine, alcohol, caffeine -- whether it's an time period of abstinence before and after the session or a rule about being present and being able to self-monitor your own ability to be present.

other people have groundrules about friendly socializing before, between or after sessions. for example, my counseling partner and i may choose to not socialize between the switch of roles from counselor to client in the middle of a session. we may decide to not have friendly chatter for 10 minutes before a session or 30 minutes after.

regardless of what rules your partner and you decide on, stick to them. negotiate rules that are fair for the counseling partnership, be clear, write them down and agree to follow these rules. then, be in your integrity with these rules. this will help build the trust needed to facilitate a healthy counseling alliance.

aside from groundrules, decide the time limit for the session. decide if it's a one-time deal or long-term work. are you going to counsel this week for 20 minutes each, and leave it at that for now; or, are you choosing to counsel every thursday morning for 5 minutes each and every saturday day for 30 minutes each. the possibilities are endless.

lastly, choose a place that is appropriate for the both of you. choose someplace accessible and comfortable. make sure to have the chairs, pillows or other furniture you need for each person. and make sure to turn off phone-ringers and put away other distractions so as not to interrupt the clients space.

as the counselor

as you can possibly imagine, there are alot of techniques and rules to understand when you are taking on the role of counselor. for the purpose of this article, we'll cover what to do before you begin, how to begin, what to do when you're in the session, and how to end.

before you begin, make sure you understand the groundrules and the time allotted for this session. make sure you have a watch or timer.

you are ready to begin. the counselor is always the timer, so check what time it is and make sure you know when the session is supposed to end.

what you need to know about beginning the session is this: The client always chooses the direction of their session. In the client section of this article, there is a list of suggestions for client work. If the client feels stuck, bring out some of these suggestions and encourage them to choose.

the most important thing you need to know as a counselor is technique. there are so many different techniques out there and i'll give a rundown of some of them here. but first, remember the purpose of being a counselor. your purpose is to facilitate your clients connection to their divine nature by offering them the space to be listened to in a non-judgemental way. Your goal is to provide the space for your client to be able to experience and express their emotions openly.

if you're giving an opinion, advice or asking questions out of curiosity, you're not doing it right. peer counseling is not another chance to hang out one-on-one with someone.

the first thing i want to address is your posture and eye-contact. to facilitate openness, be open yourself. sit in a way that shows your client that you are open to them and their process. express the compassion and lovingness you feel for them through your posture and gaze -- and don't be fake. offer your client eye-contact, but don't take it personally if they don't take it. and if they choose to take it, keep it there for them.

next, be attentive but not overly ambitious. offer your client your attention without being overbearing. the best way to encourage your client to delve into their own process is to be there with them, listen and humbly show them (through nods, etc.) that you are listening. if good attention, empathy and presence are all you offer your client, you are off to an amazing start.

beyond this, there are many ways to listen and work with your counseling partner. some of the techniques you can use are: mirroring, reflective listening, questions, challenges, supporting contradictions and commitments, as well as art, theatre, expression and more. beyond what you learn in here, the types of techniques you can learn may seem endless.

there are so many possibilities out there, and its' important to have consent with the techniques you use. while your client is in a vulnerable place, make sure to do nothing that hasn't been agreed upon earlier -- especially if it may be more dangerous and you may be not as experiences as you'd like to be.

mirroring and reflective listening are similar techniques. they offer a way for you to show your counseling partner that you are right there with them in working out their process. through these techniques you reflect back to them what they are saying. "i see that you're angry right now." "i hear you saying that your father was really abusive." these are examples of mirroring what the client is saying and reflecting back to them what they are saying. this type of statement is a kind of transition that can help them move from one thought to another on the same subject. it is especially good if your partner keeps moving from one topic to another and changing the subject alot, when they really are wanting to get deeper into their process.

the rule with questions is refrain from questions out of your own curiosity and yes and no questions. as a counselor, you don't need all the details -- that's not what you're there for. and, yes and no questions usually stunt the process. ask open ended questions -- with who, what, how, where and why as your basis. questions that push the client into a trap of yours are not okay. refrain from asking questions that begin with "do you." a question like, "do you feel sad?" pushes the client into a place where they have to respond to your curiosity. "how do you feel about that?" would be a lot more appropriate.

challenges and supporting contradictions fall into the same line of counseling technique. a challenge may be something like, "i want to challenge you to see yourself as brave here," or "i want to challenge you to give yourself the space to fall apart." a contradiction is also a type of challenge. if i'm being counseled and am talking about being unlovable, my counselor might suggest a contradiction that goes like this:

counselor: "would you like a contradiction?"

client: "sure."

counselor: "i want you to say: i am completely lovable in every way, shape and form." they could have me repeat this over and over again and process what comes up. My favorite scene in the movie, Good Will Hunting, is when Robin Williams, playing a counselor tells Matt Damon that the abuse he went through was not his fault. He repeated it over and over until Matt Damon broke down crying. this is a contradiction.

commitments are another kind of contradiction. with the same example used above, my counselor offering me the chance to make a commitment to actively loving myself every day for a week or for the five minutes of the session is a challenging and supportive way to help me access my fears, inhibitions and process around not loving myself.

along with the techniques listed here, art, theatre and expression are but a few of the many possibilities out there. have your partner draw out their feelings and talk about it. ask them to act out the scenerio that they keep coming back to. have them scream in to pillows, punch a punching bag, rip up newspapers, and/or say ouch over and over when they cut themselves.

these techniques are all a way to help the client move along their process. practice techniques, get feedback about what works and doesn't work. negotiate new trials ahead of time and never forget: the client is in charge of their healing process and what they deal with.

last of all is what happens when your session is up. when you've noticed that your time is almost up, begin the wrap up. let your client know that there is 2 or 5 minutes left so they can begin to work toward being present. and when the time is up, gently let them know that the session must end. asking them if they are present or not is highly recommended. and whether they are or are not present, giving them an attention out is something i suggest. an attention out is a question (or 2 or 3) that bring the clients attention out of their session and into the present moment. possible questions are: what's your favorite color in the room? what is 14 + 91? what is your favorite pattern in this rug? what is your favorite book on that shelf? get them to think with their logic-mind, or to notice the room and what's inside it. ask them if they need another one or if they feel present. when they are back in the present, your role as counselor is finished.

good job.

as the client

because this is a peer counseling session, you have an equal role in making this session work. and while your counselor is there to facilitate your journey into your process, your role is to journey there and make the journey back.

before you begin the session, make sure you are comfortable. set up the space with your counselor so that you are ready to go on your counseling journey.

when the counseling session starts, it is your responsibility to begin the journey into your process. You can begin with any recent news in your life, work into recent upsets, troubles from the past, telling your life story, self-appreciations, goal-setting or commitments, contradictions, and more.

because you have the opportunity to be the counselor also, you know the wide range of techniques available. maximize your ability to plow into your healing process by using whatever techniques will help you get there.

this session is your space. use it. this is your opportunity for healing and accessesing your connection with your divine energy.

if your counselor is doing something that isn't working, let them know. but most of all, relax and dive in.

the last thing you need to know regards the end of your session. when your counselor gives you the end-of-session time warning work with them to become present. there have been times when i've wanted to still go deeper into my process, or stay where i'm at. but they need you to be in the present moment now and it's your responsibility to choose to come back.

i wish you all the luck you need in your healing journey.

wrapping up

there's a lot of information in this article. you're not going to get it all in at once, and you probably don't want to. take it easy, work into things at a pace that feels comfortable for you. remember to negotiate and check-in on your groundrules and how techniques and the counseling relationship is going. and most importantly, work this process within your chosen values. let this experience be liberating for everyone involved.